How Not to Outwit a Duck

Unlike Washington, Islamabad and Kabul know that the Taliban cannot be wished away to the fringe.

Written by Mani Shankar Aiyar | Published: June 7, 2014 1:53 am
Nawaz Sharif (left) and Hamid Karzai have a pragmatic approach in dealing with the Talibans. Nawaz Sharif (left) and Hamid Karzai have a pragmatic approach in dealing with the Talibans.

Book: The Wrong Enemy: America in Afghanistan, 2001-2014

Author: Carlotta Gall

Publishers: Penguin

Pages: 329

Price: Rs 1680

The fly-leaf quotes Richard Holbrooke, “We may be fighting the wrong enemy in the wrong country”. What a brilliant insight into 13 years of warring on a largely invisible enemy while (oops, sorry) inflicting “collateral damage” on a hapless people in two countries that has taken thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, of the same innocent lives the Americans went in to protect.

Carlotta Gall meticulously documents scores of incidents of collateral damage and casual cruelty: engagement parties being strafed from the air just as the festivities are getting underway; the mindless self-goal of cutting down courageous anti-Taliban militants (from a safe distance, so you don’t even see what you are doing) who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time; the sudden elimination from life itself of families huddled together against the wrong enemy (for they knew not that it would be NATO forces who would eventually kill them); the grim futility of turning an assassination plot against one man — Osama bin Laden — into a War on Terror that quickly transmogrified into a War on the blameless Afghani aam admi.

After covering the war for all its long and wasted 13 years, Ms Gall begins her book by accurately seeing that “by going to war in 2001, the United States was walking into the Islamists’ trap”. But it was not a trap sprung by the Islamists. They did not even know the Americans were going to avenge themselves on the Afghans for 9/11.

It was Bush, George W, who trapped himself in the blind, almost on the lines of Ogden Nash’s famous poem:
“The hunter crouches in his blind
‘Neath camouflage of every kind.
And conjures up a quacking noise
To lend allure to his decoys.
This grown up man, with pluck and luck,
Is hoping to outwit a duck”

The Americans really thought they were going to outwit a duck. The duck, however, waddled away. Instead of slicing him into salami-thin wafers, the daisy- cutters unleashed by the American hunters simply drove him into the Tora Bora tunnels and from there straight to a safe haven in Abbotabad (with a slew of wives withal!). And it took thousands of Afghan and Pakistani dead before bin Laden was discovered in his lair and slaughtered in cold blood, his body buried far out at sea before anyone knew he had been found and killed. Osama is dead. Al-Qaeda lives on. So do the Taliban, Afghan and Pakistani. So do the freed quintuplet of Gitmo, as they return to Afghanistan after a refreshing promised year-long holiday in Qatar. What an ironic end to a pointless war. “The war,” says Gall, “has been a tragedy costing untold thousands of lives and lasting far too long.” Gall does not add that it took years longer for the Americans to finish off just one Most Wanted than it had for them to finish off the German nation twice over in the two World Wars. For, “Pakistan, not Afghanistan, has been the true enemy.”

And this, of course, takes Ms Gall in one bound to her next action point, that as Pakistan is still exporting militant Islam, they are the real enemy. “The United States,” she snarls, “still has much to do.” Ah, yes and, pray, what is that? To carry the war out of Afghanistan and into Pakistan? But if the US “has already paid heavily in blood, treasure and prestige” then do we in India have to pick up the gauntlet? Gall does not say so. But there are plenty of siren voices in India and the wider world saying that this is just what we must do to save ourselves from “militant Islam” and thus enhance our Great Power standing in the world.

In this centenary year of the commencement of the two World Wars between the Great Powers that led to their being extinguished as Great Powers just three decades later, we must remind ourselves as a Great Power-in-the making that Great Powers are Great Powers only because they have the capacity to wage wars and want everyone to know this. As AJP Taylor remarks wisely in his foreword to the second edition of his justly famed The Origins of the Second World War: “I think all this striving after greatness and domination is idiotic (but) as a historian I recognise that Powers will be Powers”. If India under Modi decides its future lies in unveiling its 56-inch chest, then we will go the way of the Americans, perhaps worse since the Pakistanis will not be restrained, as the USSR was, about unleashing mass nuclear suicide if it looks as if they are losing anyway. No, the real lesson to be learnt from America blundering in Afghanistan like a punch-drunk boxer is to recognise what suddenly, if transiently, dawns on Carlotta Gall (p.190): “Increasingly, the people were siding with, or at least not opposing, the Taliban.”

That is the crux of the matter. The Afghan conundrum can be resolved only by the Afghans. Pakistan is not Afghanistan’s natural ally. Remember, Afghanistan was the only country in the world to vote against Pakistan’s entry into the United Nations. That quarrel — the Durand Line of 1893 that divides Pathan from Pathan — remains at the root of their querulous disputes. On the other hand, it is almost embarrassing for an Indian to visit Kabul to encomiums of praise about what a wonderful people the Indians are and what a ghastly bunch the Pakistanis are. Therefore, instead of trying to fill the departing Americans’ boots (that were rarely on the ground, cowards and bullies that they are) we should be backing and encouraging Karzai and Nawaz Sharif to do exactly what they are doing — entering into negotiations with the Taliban and the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan in recognition of the indubitable fact that while neither is the dominant political force in their respective countries, both have a real support base among a section of the population (about as much as Modi has in ours — nearly a third). They cannot be wished away. They have to be reconciled. That is the way forward with the Afghans and the Pakistanis. As for the West, we should be telling NATO, “Thank you — and goodbye. And for God’s sake, don’t come back. Ta-Ta.”

The writer is a Rajya Sabha MP from the Congress Party

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